Saturday, January 20, 2018

Returning to "Twin Peaks"

The much-hyped return of "Twin Peaks" resulted in absolutely dismal ratings for Showtime.  I'm not surprised, because the audience for the show was limited from the start.  It only makes sense to watch the new "Twin Peaks" if you watched and enjoyed the original.  Also, you'd better be a fan of the increasingly esoteric work of David Lynch since "Twin Peaks" went off the air in 1991.  There's material in the revival that is daring for a premium cable outfit to be airing, and would be unthinkable on network television.  

In other ways, however, the return of "Twin Peaks" feels like a throwback.  Eighteen episodes were aired across fifteen weeks, making it one of the lengthier television seasons for any cable drama.  Each episode also ends with a full scroll of production credits, often over a closing musical act.  The pacing is unhurried, making room for dozens of characters and subplots.  The show more or less retains the broader structure of an evening soap and detective program, but only bothers about things like plot toward the very end of the season.   

Instead, David Lynch is more interested in his own experiments in mood and tone, sometimes horrific, sometimes satirical, and sometimes just inexplicable.  Bizarre things happen every week, sometimes to further the story or add character shadings, but more often because this is "Twin Peaks," and weird happenings are par for the course.  An entire episode is devoted to giving context to the show's supernatural mythology, but it unfolds like an experimental film with little exposition or dialogue. Michael Cera drops by for a single scene to play the son of Andy and Lucy, impersonating a young Marlon Brando the whole time.  Why?  Well, why not?    

The revival is full of little cameos like this, making some episodes feel like a string of loosely collected vignettes.  Several of the new characters are played by Lynch regulars like Laura Dern and Naomi Watts.  Nearly every surviving member of the original cast returned, though the twenty-five year hiatus means that even the youngest cast members are now middle-aged, and most of the leads are in their sixties.  In some cases this means a radical transformation of a character like Bobby Briggs, from troublemaker teenager to sympathetic police officer.  Due to the long production time, several actors passed away in the time between shooting scenes for the show, and the episodes going to air, including Catherine Coulson and Miguel Ferrer.  It gives the whole revival a melancholy, elegiac air at times.

One original cast member who hasn't lost a step is Kyle MacLachlan, who returns playing three versions of his Agent Cooper character.  He gets the most coherent and complete storyline here, trying to navigate his way back to the town of Twin Peaks after a long absence, with an evil doppelganger causing trouble along the way.  However, MacLachlan actually spends most of the season as "Dougie," a third, idiot-savant version of Cooper, who goes off on a series of totally unrelated adventures.  Those who are invested in the plot will find plenty of labyrinthine new developments to puzzle over, but I quickly found it futile to try and keep track of all the obscure character names and obtuse symbolism.  Apparently it all does make sense, but that's beside the point.

So what is the point?  Well, it's watching a tender scene play out between Norma and Big Ed in the diner, or a spectacularly horrific one involving Sarah Palmer in a nearby bar, or a delightfully silly one with a gangster played by Robert Knepper and a trio of pink-clad gun molls.  It's hearing the wonderfully distinct sound design, which Lynch himself is credited for in every single episode.  It's seeing MacLachlan and Laura Dern reunited again.  It's appreciating how much better Dana Ashbrook's acting chops have become.  It's doing a double take every time you spot a famous face like Eddie Vedder or Monica Bellucci.  It's being absolutely infuriated by Audrey Horne's brief storyline.     

And it's marvelling at the fact that David Lynch was given complete carte blanche by Showtime to make the new "Twin Peaks" exactly the way he wanted, without compromise.  And whatever you make of the show, that's a rare and wonderful thing.  

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